An old stuffed horse sold at auction at Christie’s last week for over $266,000. In the collection were also a dog and a couple of other ponies. They didn’t fetch quite as much. It wasn’t just any bit of horseflesh though, that brought the bidders in their cowboy best to Rockefeller Center. This horse was a star attraction—Trigger—the most famous equine television celebrity, ever. On each episode of The Roy Rogers Show, the beloved television series from the 1950s, the Golden Palomino reared back on his sturdy hind legs and whinnied like the thoroughbred he was. Roy and Trigger rode into the sunset a hundred times or more, not counting reruns. Little kids, like me, sat cross-legged before a cyclopean wooden box bowed slightly at the top, and stared wide-eyed at the black-and-white images on the screen; enthralled, anxious and then weepy with relief when the bad guys were routed and the good guys saved the day.
“Howdy. I’m Roy Rogers, Jr. But they call me Dusty.” A tall, robust cowboy, dressed all in black but for his pristine white Stetson, was there to greet me as I entered the show rooms at Christie’s auction house on Rockefeller Plaza in midtown. Behind him, Trigger rose suspended in time from a jumble of carefully staged hay bales. Men and women of a certain age gathered around Roy, Jr. like he was a rock star. Not, as one spry oldster claimed, like the rock stars today.
Roy Jr. went on to tell me his famous parents had intended to call him Dustin, but at the last minute went for ‘Junior.’ He grew up with the nickname Dusty. He gestured to his handsome son—Roy Rogers’ grandson—standing quietly nearby. He was equally the cowboy with his trim goatee, neat bolo tie and identical white Stetson. “He got to be named Dustin.”
I wandered into the galleries, more curious than anything, while recorded tunes from that era settled around me like a worn comfort blanket. A room full of glass cases displayed the kinds of toys I recalled as a child: the 3-D View-Master, metal lunchboxes pictured with Roy and Dale and Trigger. Bullet, the trusty and fearless German shepherd, was my favorite. There were pencil cases and crayon sets that prepared me for the bigger leap to my first John Gnagy drawing kit when I was a little bit older and absolutely sure of my artistic direction. There was the very same cowboy outfit, from boots to faux-suede fringed jacket to lop-sided felt cowboy hat, that my freckle-faced crush at the time, Billy McDaniel, wore when we were maybe six or seven years old. I listened and heard Gene Autry singing: “I’m back in the saddle again. Back where a friend is a friend….” Throat got a little lumpy, tears welled up. I had crossed onto an involuntary path of nostalgia.
A small collection of guitars in the next room reminded me: Note to self. Get The Mister back here. Mannequins lined one wall dressed in the fashions of the original “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Nudie the Tailor. Sequined cuffs, laced fronts, ruffled hems and western images embossed with colorful silk threads. I read later that the grand daughters of the famous tailor—still carrying on his Western tailoring business—had reclaimed Nudie’s trailer—a bulky structure shaped like a covered wagon, which had been a gift to Roy Rogers. It was an emotional bid for them. Not everyone was pleased about the auction. The collection started as a museum in 1967. The old couple that ran the museum got older and the visitors died out. Some thought Roy and Dale would not have approved. “They are spinning in their graves right now,” said a family friend.
Roy, Jr.—or Dusty—was being interviewed in the adjacent room so I hurried to eavesdrop on the exchange between him and the man from the Wall Street Journal. Roy, Jr. was clearly surprised to hear what paper the man was from. “Really? Thought you guys were only innerested in whether it was piggies up or chickens down!” The talk between them immediately turned to—what else—the World Cup. My disappointment was short-lived as the interviewer brought the conversation back to the cowboy’s life.
With the video camera trained on him, Roy Jr. stood beside a pair of cowboy boots the color of worn pennies, rubbed many times for luck to a warm rosy glow. He said they were the first pair of boots his dad owned. “They were too poor to have his first baby shoes bronzed.” My own family was poor enough, yet poor or not we had our baby shoes bronzed. That crinkled pair of status symbols remains on my bookshelf to this day.
“Did you have a normal childhood?” “Yep,” Roy responded, unruffled. A small group had gathered around him now, aware of the interview and who he was. We held our breath. I waited for some secret to be revealed, some familial dysfunction we could all relate to. “Dad took me everywhere.” He stroked the bronzed boots. “There’s a lot of mileage, a lot of memories. Well, I hopped onto my dad’s feet a few times and let him waltz me over the linoleum. When he was asleep I’d poke him in the nose.”
“Think you can fill your dad’s shoes?” We turned a look of collective displeasure to the interviewer, hunched over his camera. To that impertinent question Dusty answered wryly: “Nope. Dad was an 8 1/2. Ah’ma 10 1/2, so no, I don’t think I’d fit ’em.” He went on to say that in those days the cowboys were pretty small. Shot from below, the camera angled them into giants on the screen. “But then John Wayne came along and ruined all that.”
Gesturing to an odd set up that turned out to be a cobbler’s workbench, he revealed that his famous dad’s first job had been in a shoe company. The skill for the craft never left him and he was always able to make his own boots. Along the clean, white wall behind Dusty ran a double shelf crowded with cowboy boots of all styles and wear and tear.
In another room he’d held his mother’s charm bracelet, brought to him from a locked case by Christie's Public Relations Coordinator, Sung-Hee Park. Dale had worn it every day, adding new charms, until it got too heavy. Was putting all this up for auction difficult? “Difficult?” Dusty thought a moment. “Actually it was a horrendous decision. We’re only in charge of history for so long. Our family’s no different. Dad always said when it all gets to be a burden, then sell it.” We moved in closer to look at his mother’s bracelet, feel his emotion. “It was a different place—a different time—we’ll never see again. They lived the way they talked and never let anyone down. You could always hang your hat on what they told you.”
A behemoth some might call an automobile stretched nearly the full length of the next room. I circled the chrome-trimmed monster knowing full well I would have to persuade The Mister to return with me the next day, even if it meant him skiving off from work. Nudie also designed the 1963 Pontiac Bonneville gas-guzzler decorated within an inch of its massive frame with something like 139 silver dollars. A shiny colt 45 served as the stick shift. In those days you didn’t worry about seat belts. The siblings would fight to perch precariously atop an ornate leather saddle squeezed into the front seat. When dad picked them up from school, they were the envy of all the other kids traipsing onto a far less adventuresome school bus.
“We never made it to the Rose Parade,” Dusty said, a little wistfully I thought. Obliging the interviewer once again, he slid behind the wheel. “It is a little bit garish,” he admitted. And then, with a sly grin, “Unless you’re a cowboy.”
Later, The Mister was pleasantly surprised to hear that Roy Rogers collected foreign cars and was wild about anything British, especially Jaguars.
In the room where Roy’s shooting gallery for kids was displayed, I chatted up one of the guards, a pleasant young man, Hispanic and probably in his late 20s. “You can’t possibly remember this stuff. You probably never heard of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.” No, he told me, he always thought it was a restaurant. “But,” he added, “So much celebrity stuff is smoke and mirrors. It’s nice to know these folks were real.”
Real meant nine kids, some adopted. They were an International family long before Brad and Angelina’s brood. Dusty’s siblings were Choctaw, Scottish, Korean. Linda Lou was his natural born sister but not one of them was favored. I perked up at the reference to Linda Lou, as it was an endearment my dad held for me practically all his life.
Real meant a large round dining room table. “Something missing in a lot of families today,” Dusty said. Dale, their mother, was big on good behavior. She was the Texan. Roy Rogers hailed from Ohio. “You can always tell a Texan,” he’d say, before adding, “But not much.” When Dale discovered the spinning Lazy Susan in the middle of the custom made dining table had been pilfered during the prayer before meals she insisted from then on that they all hold hands while they prayed. If one of her children did not heed a warning to behave at the table she followed through on her threat and remained standing above the culprit’s head, tipping the milk pitcher dry. Until the drinking glasses were replaced with aluminum, there was broken glass all the time. “With nine kids,” Dusty said, “you have got to control the situation.”
Especially real to me was the revelation that their mother was a terrible cook. “Mine, too!” I wanted to shout. I swelled with recognition when he said; “To this day I can’t get a sprout through my lips.” Dale was the Queen of Texas but also the Queen of the Leftovers. And she never, ever cooked on Sundays. But that’s where the similarities ended. They hunted and fished and ate what they caught. “We drank raw milk. No worries about any crazy stupid thing you could die of today.”
Something in the previous room kept calling me back. I guessed at first it was the car and I wanted plenty of photos in case The Mister did not get to see it in person. But, along one wall of framed memorabilia a black and white photograph of a handsome, lean-faced cowboy caught my eye. A woman peered closer to the photo. “Who is that?” she wondered aloud. Startled, I answered: “He’s my second cousin, Jack Kelly!” “Who?” “One of the Maverick brothers. Brett?” Still confused, I added: “You know, the show, Maverick. James Garner.” “Oh” she sighed, “the one you didn’t see much of.” It was from Jack Kelly’s mother, my great Aunt Nan that I learned in a telephone call that my mother suffered from epilepsy. I was maybe ten years old and picked up the receiver where it hung after my mother collapsed into a seizure. Across a long distance call from California Aunt Nan guided me into aiding my mother. As kids my younger sister and I were in the dark about my mother’s condition. An ordinary childlike transgression would send her into paroxysms of rage. It was the family secret.
My second cousin had written on his photo: “For Dale & Roy—You have no right to celebrate a fiftieth anniversary 45 years too early!” I had never met him, I don’t think. Never saw his handwriting, until then. I want 45 years with The Mister, I thought.
“We lived in a lucky time,” the woman beside me murmured.
Standing before Trigger again I thought about what I had read of a family friend of the Rogers’ reaction to the auction. “Roy always said. ‘When I’m dead, skin me and put me up on Trigger.’ It’s a famous quote. If he got his wish, he’d be up here for sale today.” What might have seemed shocking then would hardly be little more than outlandish in a time when a dubious exhibition called Bodies draws them by the hundreds of thousands. At least the viewer would be assured of the cowboy’s origin, and more importantly, his wish; unlike the bodies of the Chinese men and women on display at the South Street Seaport.
I stopped back at Trigger, clicking away, for sure, but also photographing the other hero of my childhood, the German Shepherd, Bullet, who was also the Rogers’ family pet. He sold for $35,000. Two women, older than me, were chatting gleefully. “Oh, I still say that to my friends. Happy Trails.” She asked if I would take her picture and e-mail it to her. I happily obliged. “I feel like a rock star,” she giggled. Her friend maneuvered a walker around the haystacks. Celebrities, nowadays, she said, they were only famous to be famous. No quality, no gentleness. “No talent,” the other chimed. “They’re all like that Lady Gaga person.” They nodded in agreement. I told them Trigger was expected to fetch over $200,000 at auction. “That’s a lotta money for a horse,” she reflected.
The newest pop star, Justin Bieber, a mere baby himself, has a video of his hit song “Baby.” With over 246 million views it has surpassed Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” as the most watched Youtube video of all time.
That is, until the next big thing comes along.